Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings

Article excerpt

No review of the planet's environmental account books can overlook the blatant and accelerating loss of natural landscapes. Just as obvious is the widespread desire to slow or halt these losses. What reasoning lies behind people's concern? Is the purpose of landscape protection to safeguard flora and fauna? Do scientists believe that time is too short to evaluate all the costs of landscape damage? Or is the whole environmental movement being powered by a fanatical preservation imperative that is opposed to all change? Actually, none of these explanations is paramount in the record of landscape rescue and rehabilitation. Another force--out of sight, primal, and far more powerful--is at work. Among the major attractions of natural landscapes is their very immutability, the quality each has, in J. B. Jackson's words, to be "a space with a degree of permanence" (Jackson 1984, 5). The more we suffer the loss of natural landscapes, the more we realize that efforts to save them amount to bids to save ourselves.

When, a few centuries ago, the human worldview was limited to small and simple neighborhood environments, landscapes were considered not merely immutable but invulnerable. Such innocence was swept aside by the Industrial Revolution, a quickening current of environmental change that expanded the periphery of human awareness. With increasing frequency, watchful skeptics came to recognize the great extent of landscapes torn and scarred in the name of progress (Sauer 1938; Glacken 1967). By the mid-nineteenth century environmental damage had marred large portions of the earth's surface, especially in Europe.

One of the most observant and thoughtful witnesses to the rapid environmental changes in Europe was George Perkins Marsh, an able scholar and diplomat who, in his remarkable Man and Nature (1965 [1864]), chronicled the rising power of humans to permanently change, with increasing ease, the surface of the earth. Though now widely considered a cornerstone of the environmental movement, the book was given little notice during Marsh's lifetime, its message muffled by the presumed recuperative powers of nature and by the knowledge that frontiers, once crossed, had always exposed bountiful new riches for the private taking.

In the late twentieth century, environmental degradation has grown so much that only with specific intent and effort can we avoid encountering landscapes stripped, trimmed, planed, drained, and otherwise reshaped by the staggering human command of technology. Faith in landscape permanence, once unassailable, is vulnerable, withered not only by growing cynicism but also by historical events and an assortment of mechanical tools and forces that we ourselves have developed. Curiously, the tool with the greatest ability to reshape is still seldom recognized. That tool is nuclear power.

Nuclear power can reshape landscapes in several ways. The most obvious changes come from weapons testing (Misrach 1990; Goin 1991; Loomis 1992), as conducted for several decades in Nevada and other rural realms, and engineering excavations, such as those once proposed for Alaska (O'Neil 1994). A second body of changes results from massive translocations of contaminated vegetation and soil, as was necessary after the Chernobyl explosion (Medvedev 1990) A third and little-appreciated alteration involves landscape adjustments that will accompany the permanent storage of long-lived radioactive wastes at several disposal sites under consideration around the world.

The strong spatial scent of this growing third alteration has attracted the attention of geographers interested in identifying the routes and sites for the transportation and disposal of waste material, in assessing public perceptions of risk, and in identifying equity issues accompanying all decisions about waste handling (Kasperson 1982; Solomon and Cameron 1984; Blowers and Lowry 1987; Solomon and others 1987; Shelley and others 1988; Jacob 1990; van der Plight 1992; Flynn and others 1995). …